Seven Democratic presidential contenders on Friday gathered for the last debate before Monday’s presidential primary in the state, a crucial vote in the still-crowded candidate field.
In a two-and-a-half hour exchange only briefly interrupted by short commercial breaks, the Democrats on stage covered plenty of ground. Here are some takeaways:
Who’s the unifier?
Now that the caucuses/primaries are underway, the candidates want to show voters that they can unify the party when it comes time to pick a nominee.
For some, like former Vice President Joe Biden, that has been the message from the start. But as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) picks up steam, he’s compelled to tweak his strategy a bit, to show that he can be more than the anti-establishment crusader.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) continued to envelop her progressive policies in a relatable, anecdotal shell and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) tried to convey that she is a presidential everywoman. Expect candidates to keep trying to broaden their appeal as the convention looms ever closer.
Warren on ‘race conscious laws’
The Massachusetts senator oftentimes struggled to get a word in edgewise, but her answer on policies to address racial wealth disparities stood out for its strength.
“Race has totally permeated our criminal justice system,” Warren said, before arguing that criminal justice can’t be the only issue on which Democrats address racial disparities.
From home ownership to education, employment to entrepreneurship, she said, the next President should focus on “race conscious laws” to address past bias in the legal code.
Biden livens up
After a surprisingly weak performance in Iowa, the former vice president needed to show the crowd in Manchester that he had the energy to take his campaign through all 50 states over two election cycles.
In large part, Biden did this, turning up the volume on his answers and delivering impassioned remarks on abortion access and childhood poverty and using his long history in Washington, D.C. to his advantage.
However, there were some definite weaknesses as well, such as the former vice president’s evasive response to recent offensive remarks by a campaign surrogate, the South Carolina legislator Dick Harpootlian.
Did Mayor Pete hold his own?
After a surprisingly strong performance in Iowa, where he’d concentrated a bunch of his campaign’s muscle, Pete Buttigieg had a lot to defend Friday night — he also got plenty of screen time, as his opponents took shots at him and, in so doing, gave him time to respond.
The former South Bend mayor held his own most of the time, given the newfound pressure he was under, but at times he slipped into clearly pre-rehearsed lines. A weak moment for Buttigieg came when moderator Linsey Davis noted that the racial disparity in marijuana arrests went up during Buttigieg’s mayorship. “We adopted a strategy that said that drug enforcement would be targeted in cases where there was a connection to the most violent group or gang connected to a murder,” the candidate replied, before pivoting to systemic racism. “These things are all connected, but that’s the point!”
Davis asked Warren if that was “a substantial answer from Mayor Buttigieg?”
“No,” Warren replied.
End Endless Wars… mostly
Every candidate on stage, when the discussion turned to foreign policy, struck some note of the now-familiar song among Democrats, about bringing the endless entanglement in Afghanistan to a conclusion. But most hedged when pressed on whether or not they would withdraw all American military might from the region.
“I have not argued for the placement of major numbers of U.S. combat troops,” Biden said at one point.
“We should work with our allies in managing terrorism, but we need to end this war in Afghanistan,” Warren said, striking a similar note before arguing that “we need to take our combat troops home.”